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Experience Lake Michigan

Enjoy the Lake

San Diego and Los Angeles may have the ocean, and New York its Central Park, but Chicago has the peaceful waters of Lake Michigan at its doorstep. Bikers, dog walkers, boaters, and runners crowd the lakefront paths on warm days; in winter the lake is equally beautiful, with icy towers formed from frozen sheets of water.

Bike Along the Lakeshore

To bike any part of the gentle dips and swells of Chicago's 20-mile lakefront bicycle path is to see the city: the skyline, the people, the water. The breeze from the lake mixes with the sounds of the city at play as you zoom by, carefree, whiling away an afternoon.

The Chicago Park District (312/742–7529 www.chicagoparkdistrict.com) is a good source for bike maps.

For information on biking in the city, contact the Active Transportation Alliance (9 W. Hubbard St., South Loop 312/427–3325 www.activetrans.org).

Bike and Roll Chicago (600 E. Grand Ave., Near North 312/729–1000 www.bikechicago.com) rents a vast array of bicycles—from mountain bikes to old-school beach cruisers—at five locations around town (drop off at a different location for a $5 fee). Fees start at $10 per hour and $35 a day. It also offers lakefront, neighborhood, and nighttime bike, Segway, or electric bike tours for $39 to $59 (bike rental included), weather permitting.

You can rent a bike for the day or by the hour from On the Route (3144 N. Lincoln Ave., Lakeview 773/477–5066 www.ontheroute.com), which stocks a large inventory of bicycles, including children's bikes. They also supply helmets and other safety equipment.

Hit the Beach

One of the greatest surprises in the city is the miles of sandy beaches that Chicagoans flock to in summer. The water becomes warm enough to swim in toward the end of June, though the brave will take an icy dip through the end of October. Chicago has about 30 miles of shoreline, most of it sand or rock beach. Beaches are open to the public daily from 11 am (a handful at 9:30 am) to 7 pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day, and many beaches have changing facilities; all are wheelchair-accessible.

The Chicago Park District (312/742–7529 www.chicagoparkdistrict.com) provides lifeguard protection during daylight hours throughout the swimming season.

All references to north and south in beach listings refer to how far north or south of the Loop each beach is. In other words, 1600 to 2400 North means the beach begins 16 blocks north of the Loop (at Madison Street, which is the 100 block) and extends for eight blocks.

Along the lakefront you'll see plenty of broken-rock breakwaters with signs that warn "No swimming or diving." Although Chicagoans frequently ignore these signs, you shouldn't. The boulders below the water are slippery with seaweed and may hide sharp, rusty scraps of metal, and the water beyond is very deep. It can be dangerous even if you know the territory.

Boating

Nothing beats the view of the Chicago skyline from the water, especially when the sun sets behind the sparkling skyscrapers. Plenty of boats are available to rent or charter, though you might want to leave the skippering to others if you're not familiar with Great Lakes navigation.

Sailboat lessons, rentals, and charters are available from Chicago Sailing (Belmont Harbor, Lakeview 773/871–7245 www.chicagosailing.com). Chicago Sailing focuses on sailing instruction for all levels and includes a program on keeping your boat in tip-top shape.

Sailboats, Inc. (Monroe Harbor, Loop 800/826–7010 www.sailboats-inc.com), one of the oldest charter-certification schools in the country, prepares its students to charter any type of boat.

Updated: 2014-02-11

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